Increasing Awareness about Possible Neurological
Alterations in Brain Status Secondary to Intimate Violence
Mary Car, OTD, OTR/L
Information and Resource Manager
Brain Injury Association of America
Issues of domestic violence were first addressed and identified in the late
1970s (Chescheir, 1996; Healey, Smith & O’Sullivan, 1998; Muelleman
et al., 1996). These early studies focused on the characteristics of the
abuser, punishment of the perpetrator, the relationship between the
perpetrator and the recipient of abuse, and intervention strategies. In the
late 1990s, what was termed domestic violence expanded and now is
more accurately called intimate violence.
Although the psychodynamics of intimate violence have been researched
widely, the types of traumatic injuries, neurochemical changes and/or
structural alterations in the brain resulting from intimate violence
altercations have not. The purpose of this paper is to identify and explain
the possible types and etiologies for traumatic injuries, neurochemical
changes and structural alterations that may occur in the brain as a result
of intimate violence, most of which are not being diagnosed.
Additionally, discussion will focus on the short- and long-term
consequences of undiagnosed TBI for the person in an intimate violent
relationship, linking together the specific type of intimate violent acts
with what may happen to the brain.
Persons with injuries from intimate violence may not be aware of the
signs of TBI, putting them at risk for subsequent injury. Additionally,
medical personnel addressing issues of persons both with or without
apparent injuries from physical violence may not be aware of the signs
and symptoms of TBI, resulting in these injuries being undiagnosed and
untreated, as well as misdiagnosed. This paper will focus on the effects of
violent interactions on brain structures and processes with the hope of
increasing awareness of the issue. A general overview of intimate
violence will be followed by an explanation of the types of TBIs which
may result. It is believed raising awareness will lead to better diagnosis
and improved treatment of those who sustain intimate violence.
1 Brain Injury Association of America
For the purposes of this article, “intimate violence” is defined as a
relationship between two people who may or may not: be of the same
sex, cohabitate or currently be in a relationship (Alpert, Cohen & Sege,
1997; Barrier, 1998; Loring & Smith, 1994; Moehling, 1988; Muelleman
et al., 1996; Novello, 1992; Saltzman & Johnson, 1996). Like domestic
violence, intimate violence includes the establishment of abusive control
and power over another person through fear, isolation and/or intimidation
(Alpert, Cohen & Sege, 1997; Campbell & Soeken, 1999; Healey, Smith
& O’Sullivan, 1998; Muelleman et al., 1996; Saltzman & Johnson, 1996).
Violent behavior (i.e., the act of engaging in intimate violence) often is
thought of as direct “hands-on” infliction of pain but also includes
implied threat or actual physical, sexual and emotional abuse, including
withholding finances and medical equipment (Campbell & Soeken, 1999;
Healey, Smith & O’Sullivan, 1998; Loring & Smith, 1994; McCoy, 1996;
Muelleman et al., 1996; Saltzman & Johnson, 1996). Intimate violence
takes place across all cultures, socioeconomic statuses, geographic
regions and ages, including teenage dating relationships and geriatric
populations (Chambliss, 1997; Healey, Smith & O’Sullivan, 1998; Keller,
1996; Melvin & Rhyne, 1998; Muelleman et al., 1996).
Statistics about intimate violence are based on reported acts, with
between two to four million women being abused physically by an
intimate each year (Campbell & Soeken, 1999; Gaffigan-Bender, 1998;
Keller, 1996; Muelleman et al., 1996; Novello, 1992). In fact, intimate
violence is the leading cause of serious injury to American women
between the ages of 15 and 44 (Gaffigan-Bender, 1998; Grisso et al.,
1991; Keller, 1996; Novello, 1992; Melvin & Rhyne, 1998), with
approximately one in four women being abused by a partner in her
lifetime (Jecker, 1993; Loring & Smith, 1994). In 70% of homes where a
woman is beaten, children also are beaten (Muelleman et al., 1996).
Because many instances of intimate violence go unreported, the actual
numbers may be greater. Although men can be abused and women can be
abusers, 95% of recipients of reported intimate violence acts are women
(Alpert, Cohen & Sege, 1997; Casardi, Langhinrichsen & Vivian, 1992;
Gaffigan-Bender & Narula, 1998; Keller, 1996; Novello, 1992).
Brain Injury Association of America 2
Researchers have indicated up to 40% of women who visit hospital
emergency rooms are there for symptoms related to physical abuse;
however, depending on the statistics cited, as few as 2.8% to 10% of
those women are identified as such (Alpert, Cohen & Sege, 1997;
Barrier, 1998; Campbell et al., 1994; Cascardi, Langhinrichsen & Vivian,
1992; Gaffigan-Bender, 1998; Jecker, 1993; Loring & Smith, 1994;
Keller, 1996; McFarlane et al., 1991; Muelleman et al., 1996; Novella,
1992; Plichta, Duncan & Plichta, 1996). Women are more likely to be
injured severely in intimate violent relationships and present contusions,
concussions, lacerations, sensory organ injury, burns, stab wounds,
miscarriages and gunshot wounds in emergency departments (Barrier,
1998; Campbell et al., 1994; Cascardi, Langhinrichsen & Vivian, 1992;
Gaffigan-Bender & Narula, 1998; Loring & Smith, 1994; McFarlane et
al., 1991; Melvin & Rhyne, 1998; Muelleman, Lenaghan & Pakieser,
1996). With the head, face and neck injured most frequently during
physical intimate violence, (Barrier, 1998; Campbell et al., 1994; Dym,
1995; Melvin & Rhyne, 1998), these women are more likely to
experience black eyes, broken teeth, broken bones, fractures, joint
damage, chronic pain, gynecological problems, sexually transmitted
diseases, hyperventilation, choking sensations, chest pain, gastrointestinal
symptoms, insomnia, fatigue, seizures, headaches, impaired cognition,
dizziness and disability (Barrier, 1998; Campbell & Soeken, 1999;
Cascardi, Langhinrichsen & Vivian, 1992; Chescheir, 1996; Gaffigan-
Bender & Narula, 1998; Gremillion & Kanof, 1996; Loring & Smith,
1994; McFarlane et al., 1991; Melvin & Rhyne, 1998; Plichta, Duncan &
Plichta, 1996; Warshaw, 1996). Hickman (as cited in Stancliff, 1997, p.
23) states, “A woman is hit an average of 35 times before she calls the
police, and she will leave her abuser five or six times before she leaves
3 Brain Injury Association of America
Types Of Brain Injuries Which May Result From Physical
A thorough literature search was unable to reveal research directly examining TBIs as a
result of intimate violence, although numerous studies have been conducted on TBIs
occurring in sports-related incidents. Falco (1997) reports persons with sports-related
TBIs present the same deficits as persons who have sustained head trauma in other
circumstances and situations (e.g., sports-related studies will serve as correlative
reference for this paper).Death, brain injury and/or permanent damage may result from
lethal violence. The brain can be assaulted directly by physical force and
neurochemically from the prolonged effects of stress from intimate violence (Campbell
et al., 1994).
Of significance to intimate violence and TBI is the examination of the type of blow
delivered to the head and the resultant type of TBI incurred, with numerous studies on
boxers providing correlative information. Researchers indicate a boxer wearing a six to
eight ounce glove can generate an impact force of more than half a ton (Drachman &
Newell, 1999; Richards, 1995). Because of this force, gloves are worn during boxing to
“soften the blow” (Falco, 1997). Erlanger and colleagues (1999) note contact sports-
related TBIs result from lower velocity impacts than those sustained in non-contact sport
contexts. This author did not find statistics regarding the force directed by a bare fist or
use of an object.
Women who were injured physically in intimate violent relationships report they were
pushed, kicked and/or hit with a fist or other object (Pakieser, Lenaghan & Muellman,
1998). The added strength behind the use of the large muscle groups of the body, such
as with a kick or a stomp, increases the force delivered to the head. If the person’s head
hits a hard surface after being struck or actually is slammed into a hard surface (i.e., the
pavement) the impact also is increased. Likewise, use of a solid object (i.e., a bat or tire
iron) increases the force greatly, as compared to a punch or swing. Direct force to the
head can result in a closed or open head injury, with firearms providing the “ultimate”
force resulting in a penetration-type injury.
Brain Injury Association of America 4
Closed Head Injuries
A closed head injury results when a force causing injury to the brain
impacts the head, and the skull remains intact (Senelick & Ryan, 1998;
Swiercinsky, Price & Leaf, 1993). As the brain swells, the intracranial
pressure increases and may cause diffuse axonal injury, edema and even
death (Senelick & Ryan, 1998; Swiercinsky, Price & Leaf, 1993).
Initially, with closed head injury there may be no outward apparent signs
of TBI. When reporting injuries—including skull fractures—in the
emergency room (ER), studies indicate a disproportionate amount of
women are reporting they have fallen (Grisso et al., 1991). These women
are too young to be considered in a risk category for falls and may be
part of the population with undiagnosed TBIs (Grisso et al., 1991).
Open Head Injuries
An open head injury exists if the skull actually fractures or is displaced
by an outside force, leading to an increased opportunity for infection as
the brain is exposed to foreign material (Senelick & Ryan, 1998;
Swiercinsky, Price, & Leaf, 1993). In addition to being classified as open
or closed, TBIs are categorized by the type of injury to the brain (i.e.,
penetrating injury, focal ischemic lesions, diffuse axonal injury, anoxia)
(Drachman & Newell, 1999; Erlanger et al., 1999; Falco, 1997).
5 Brain Injury Association of America
Types Of Brain Injury Secondary To Force
Firearms used in intimate violence are 12 times as likely to cause death
than use of any other weapon (National Center for Injury Prevention and
Control, 1998). Handguns are the weapons used most often against
women in intimate violent relationships (Saltzman & Johnson, 1996).
The devastating TBIs caused by bullet wounds result in a 91% firearm-
related death rate overall (National Center for Injury Prevention and
Control, 1999; Stone et al., 1995). Firearms are the single largest cause of
death from TBIs, accounting for approximately 44% (Fontanarosa, 1995;
Harrison et al., 1998).
Penetrating injury to the brain occurs from the impact of a missile (i.e., a
bullet) that forces hair, skin, bone and missile fragments into the brain
(Brumback, 1996). Low velocity missiles can cause a ricochet effect
within the cranium, which widens the area of damage (Brumback, 1996).
A “through-and-through” injury occurs if the missile enters and exits the
cranium (Brumback, 1996). Through-and-through TBIs include the
effects of penetration injuries, plus additional shearing, stretching and
rupture of brain tissue (Brumback, 1996).
Gunshot wounds may be the most obvious types of lethal violence
occurring in intimate violent relationships. Unfortunately, there are many
forms of TBIs which are not as recognizable and may go undiagnosed.
Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to increase awareness of all TBIs.
Focal Ischemic Lesions
Signs of focal ischemic lesions may not be obvious at first and persons
may not be aware of the neurological repercussions. Focal ischemic
lesions even can develop a few days after the incident (Lampert &
Hardman, 1984). Ischemia (i.e., vascular inefficiency to the neural tissue)
can result in cell death (Nolte, 1993; Swiercinsky, Price & Leaf, 1993).
Brain Injury Association of America 6
A straight parallel blow to the head results in linear acceleration
movement of the skull, causing a gliding movement of the brain (Cantu,
1996; Erlanger et al., 1999; Lampert & Hardman, 1984) and a stretching
and contracting of the axons (Erlanger et al., 1999). A very forceful linear
acceleration (i.e., when a person is shoved or hit exceptionally hard)
causes neck hyperextension, which can result in loss of consciousness
secondary to axonal damage in the medullapontine angle and the reticular
substance (Lampert & Hardman, 1984).
Although cerebral spinal fluid acts as a shock absorber to alleviate the
stress on the moving brain, ischemia, contusions and axonal damage in
the brainstem may develop (Erlanger et al., 1999; Lampert & Hardman,
1984). A contusion is a type of focal ischemic lesion occurring when
small blood vessels in the brain break and deprive contiguous brain tissue
of blood (Swiercinsky, Price & Leaf, 1993). Contusions that occur at the
direct site of impact and the opposite side of impact are termed “coup
contracoup” lesions (Brumback, 1996). For instance, a coup contracoup
lesion may occur if a person is hit in the face hard enough to cause the
brain to move and slam against the back of the skull. In this case, the
brain would be injured focally in both the front and back areas.
Conversely, a type of TBI that causes widespread damage to the brain is
called a diffuse axonal injury.
Diffuse Axonal Injury
A person who is hit in the head in another way may sustain a different
type of TBI. An “uppercut” is a blow that causes the head to turn with a
rotational acceleration (Adams & Burton, 1989), increasing the force of
the blow. With each ensuing blow to the head, the force imparted
becomes even greater as the neck becomes more relaxed (Cantu, 1996;
Erlanger et al., 1999). This phenomenon may be understood better by
applying Newton’s law, which states force equals mass times acceleration
or acceleration equals force divided by mass (Cantu, 1996). If the neck
muscles are contracted in anticipation of a blow, the head can accept
greater forces without injury because the mass of the head is the same as
the mass of the body (Cantu, 1996). When the neck muscles are subtle,
the mass of the head decreases to its own weight, therefore becoming
more susceptible to an equivalent force which can deliver an increased
acceleration (Cantu, 1996; Lampert & Hardman, 1984).
7 Brain Injury Association of America
During rotation acceleration, injury occurs because the static brain delays
behind the acceleration and deceleration of the skull, thus causing
structures to tear (Lampert & Hardman, 1984). Rotational acceleration
creates shearing stress and can produce diffuse axonal injury,
intracerebral hemorrhage and subdural hematoma (Cantu, 1996; Erlanger
et al., 1999; Falco, 1997; Jordan et al., 1996; Lampert & Hardman,
A diffuse axonal injury occurs when the brain is subjected to acceleration
and deceleration forces, such as when a person is shaken violently. This
shaking—similar to what is known as Shaken Baby Syndrome in infants
and young children—recently has been termed Shaken Adult Syndrome
(Carrigan, 2000). A violent shaking episode can cause extensive tearing
of axons, mainly in the subcortical regions, white matter, corpus callosum
and brain stem (Cantu, 1996; Erlanger et al., 1999; Falco, 1997; Lampert
& Hardman, 1984). The torn axons cause disruption of nerve impulse
transmission and neurochemical release that further impairs the brain
(Swiercinsky, Price & Leaf, 1993). The neuropathway disturbance may
produce temporary or permanent widespread brain damage including
intracerebral and extracerebral hemorrhages, edema, coma and even
death (Lampert & Hardman, 1984; Lampert & Hardman, 1984, as cited
in Erlanger, Kutner, Barth & Barnes, 1999). A person sustaining a diffuse
axonal injury may present dizziness, inefficient thinking, memory loss
and behavior inhibition (Senelick & Ryan, 1998; Swiercinsky, Price &
The types of impact to the head that can result in a concussion—the most
common type of mild brain injury—include a direct blow, gunshot
wounds and/or force from a whiplash-type injury (i.e., when a person is
shaken violently) (Cantu, 1996; Swiercinsky, Price & Leaf, 1993), as
well as both closed and open head injuries (Bodel, 1999; Swiercinsky,
Price & Leaf, 1993). A concussion results from impact to the head that
causes neuronal, neurochemical and/or structural damage with or without
brain cell death (Cantu, 1996). Hematomas (i.e., bleeding in the brain)
may result in brain tissue destruction and death (Brumback, 1996). In
some instances, a blood clot in the brain may transpire secondary to a
concussion and can be fatal (Brain Injury Association, 2000).
Brain Injury Association of America 8
Early signs of concussion include confusion, dizziness, vomiting,
headache and nausea (Bodel, 1999; Kelly & Savage, 1999; Savage,
1998). Late signs of concussion are persistent headache, poor attention,
irritability, ringing in the ears, restlessness, depressed mood,
lightheadedness, memory problems, blurry vision, fatigue and anxiety
(Bodel, 1999; Kelly & Savage, 1999; Savage, 1998). Behavioral changes
signaling concussion include: blank staring, decreased response time
when answering questions or following directions, confusion,
distractibility, inability to carry out regular activities of daily living,
disorientation, ambulation in the wrong direction, slurred speech,
impaired production of thought content, extreme range of emotions,
impaired memory and loss of consciousness (Kelly & Savage, 1999;
A loss of consciousness secondary to concussion frequently follows the
injury and may last for seconds or minutes (Savage, 1998). The severity
of a concussion may be classified as a Grade 1, 2 or 3, based on
symptomology (Kelly & Savage, 1999; Savage, 1998). For sports players,
the grades are used as an indication as to when an athlete may return to
play (Kelly & Savage, 1999; Savage, 1998).
The Standardized Assessment of Concussion (SAC) Manual was
developed for coaches and physicians to assess a player’s readiness to
return to play after a concussion (McCrea, Kelly & Randolph, 1998). The
SAC is the first instrument that quantifiably measures the neurocognitive
effects of concussion, specifically the functional areas most likely to be
affected by concussion: orientation, immediate memory, concentration
and delayed recall memory (McCrea, Kelly & Randolph, 1998).
9 Brain Injury Association of America
Post-concussion syndrome may occur following a concussion as a result
of altered neurotransmitter function (Cantu, 1996; Swenson, 1997). Post-
concussion syndrome is characterized by headache, dizziness and
personality changes (Brumback, 1996; Cantu, 1996). A “migraine-like”
chronic headache may be constant or throbbing (Brumback, 1996; Cantu,
1996). Dizziness may present secondary to vestibular nerve damage
(Brumback, 1996; Cantu, 1996; Swenson, 1997). Additional presentations
of post-concussion syndrome may include amnesia, impaired
concentration, impaired ability to learn, emotional lability, irritability,
fatigue, aggressiveness, depression, anxiety and hyperactivity (Brumback,
1996; Cantu, 1996; Swenson, 1997).
Second Impact Syndrome
Second impact syndrome—also termed recurrent TBI—occurs when a
person sustains a second TBI prior to the resolution of symptoms from
the first concussion (Cantu, 1996; Kelly & Savage, 1999; Salcido &
Costich, 1992). Again, the majority of research about second impact
syndrome has focused on athletic injuries. Researchers studying athletes
have found that even a blow to the chest may cause acceleration of the
head, resulting in a second concussion (Cantu, 1996). Salcido and
Costich (1992) indicate personal or family dysfunction as an increased
risk factor for second impact syndrome.
Symptoms of second impact syndrome obvious within seconds to
minutes of incidence include collapse, rapidly dilating pupils, loss of eye
movement, presentation of respiratory failure and evolvement to a
semicomatose state (Cantu, 1996). The pathophysiology of second impact
syndrome (Cantu, 1996) results as a loss of autoregulation of the brain’s
blood supply. Cantu (1996) states:
This loss of autoregulation leads to vascular engorgement within
the cranium, which in turn markedly increases intracranial
pressure and leads to herniation either of the medial surface
(uncus) of the temporal lobe or lobes below the tentorium or of
the cerebellar tonsils through the foramen magnum. Animal
research has shown that vascular engorgement after a mild head
injury is difficult if not impossible to control. (p. 293)
Brain Injury Association of America 10
Because death may occur rapidly, initiation of emergency medical
treatment is imperative (Cantu, 1996; Swenson, 1997). Cumulative
consequences of recurrent brain injury include: dystonia, emotional
lability, hallucinations and cognitive impairment (Salcido & Costich,
1992). Additionally, dementia pugilisitca can result.
Persons who are hit repeatedly in the head—even across a span of
years—can experience a cumulative type of TBI. Recurrent brain trauma
caused by repeated blows to the head can produce the neurological
repercussion termed “dementia pugilistica,” also called chronic traumatic
encephalopathy or “punch drunk syndrome” (American Academy of
Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness, 1997; Bouras et
al., 1997; Drachman & Newell, 1999; Erlanger et al., 1999; Falco, 1997;
Geddes et al., 1999; Jordon et al., 1995; Jordon et al., 1996; Jordon et al.,
1997; Kemp et al., 1995; Richards, 1995; Zasler, 2000). Dementia
pugilistica is characterized by findings of damage to one or more of the
pyramidal, extrapyramidal or cerebellar systems with the presentation of
dementia, behavioral change, impaired cognition, ataxia, confusion,
psychosis and motor dysfunction (Falco, 1997; Jordan et al., 1997;
Roberts 1988; Roberts, Allsop & Bruton, 1990).
Studies on dementia pugilistica have been focused on boxers and
supplemented with limited animal studies of recurrent brain injury
(Geddes et al., 1999). Researchers performing a single case autopsy
examination of a physically abused woman who had presented with
dementia, however, found brain pathology identical to that of boxers with
dementia pugilistica (Geddes et al., 1999; Roberts et al., 1990).
Furthermore, researchers conducting an autopsy examination of an
autistic woman who had displayed the self-injuring behavior of head-
banging, revealed similar findings as others who had endured repeated
head injuries (Geddes et al., 1999; Hof et al., 1991). Collectively,
research suggests a similar mechanism of action, subsequent or severe
impacts to the head, generates the neuropathological degeneration
associated with dementia pugilistica.
11 Brain Injury Association of America
The clinical manifestations of dementia pugilistica occur in three stages
(Falco, 1997; Richards, 1995), with progression through the three stages
and/or plateauing possible at any level (Falco, 1997). Symptoms can
appear years after the brain trauma and even late in life (Falco, 1997).
Erlanger and colleagues (1999) state mild neurocognitive deficits will
develop prior to a diagnosis of dementia pugilistica. Psychotic symptoms
and affective disturbances appear in the first stage (Falco, 1997;
Richards, 1995; Roberts, Allsop & Bruton, 1990). Memory loss,
Parkinsonism, social instability and psychiatric symptoms present in the
second stage (Falco, 1997; Richards, 1995; Roberts, Allsop & Bruton,
1990). In the final stage of dementia pugilistica, declining cognitive
function with dementia and pyramidal, extrapyramidal and cerebellar
disease is typified (Falco, 1997; Richards, 1995; Roberts, Allsop &
Neurologically, the hallmark presentations of dementia pugilistica are
damage to the septum pellucidum, cerebral atrophy, enlargement of the
ventricles, focal scarring of the cerebellum, reduced cholinergic activity
in the basal forebrain, loss of pigmented neurons in the substantia nigra
and neurofibrillary tangles in the cortex, particularly in the temporal lobe
(Buee et al., 1994; Bouras et al., 1997; Dale et al., 1991; Drachman &
Newell, 1999; Falco, 1997; Hof et al., 1992; Jordan et al., 1995; Jordan et
al., 1997; Richards, 1995; Roberts, 1988; Roberts, Allsop & Bruton,
1990; Roberts et al., 1990). The neurofibrillary tangles of dementia
pugilistica are identical morphologically to those associated with
Alzheimer’s disease (Bouras et al., 1997; Dale et al., 1991; Lennox et al.,
1988; Roberts, 1988; Roberts, Allsop & Bruton, 1990). Contrary to
Alzheimer’s, the neurofibrillary tangles observed in dementia pugilistica
do not or rarely present neuritic senile plaques and are concentrated in
the superficial layers of the neocortex (Bouras et al., 1997; Dale et al.,
1991; Hof et al., 1991; Richards, 1995; Roberts, 1988; Roberts, Allsop &
Bruton, 1990; Scully et al., 1999).
It is evidenced that TBIs produce metabolic changes in the brain (Geddes
et al., 1999). Little is known, however, about the initial histological
changes that take place in the brain following trauma and prior to the
development of dementia pugilistica (Geddes et al., 1999). Recent
research indicates groups of neurofibrillary tangles consistently situate on
blood vessels in the most injured areas and deep in the sulci of the brain
(Geddes et al., 1999; Hof et al., 1991). Researchers believe this may be
because the neuronal cytoskeleton abates shortly after ischemic insult or
because of direct damage to the vessels (Geddes et al., 1999; Jordan et
Brain Injury Association of America 12
al., 1995). Furthermore, researchers believe that since the blood vessels
are sites where axons change directions, they may be more susceptible to
shearing stress (Geddes et al., 1999). Cytoskeleton neuronal cell body
abnormalities may be induced by cytotoxins released during shearing
episodes (Geddes et al., 1999).
Researchers suggest some people have a genetic predisposition which
makes them more susceptible to the devastation of TBI (Geddes et al.,
1999; Zasler, 2000). Persons with the genetic predisposition can be
expected to present a greater severity of impairment (Geddes et al., 1999;
Zasler, 2000). Research by Nemetz et al. (1999) concluded that persons
with TBI and a predisposition to Alzheimer’s developed Alzheimer’s
disease in a median of 10 years, versus a median of 18 years for persons
without a prior TBI (Zasler, 2000). The onset of Alzheimer’s disease was
shorter also for persons with the predisposition who had experienced a
TBI prior to age 65 (Nemetz et al., 1999). The relationship between TBI
and Alzheimer’s is complex. Although Zasler (2000) addresses the issue
on a deeper level, there is a lack of study regarding the chronic
implications for persons who have been the recipients of long-term
physical intimate violence.
During intimate violence, anoxic brain injury may occur following
strangulation, near-drowning, head impact and/or blood loss from open
lesions, such as stab wounds. The brain can be deprived of oxygen during
intimate violence because of forced restriction by the perpetrator. Anoxia
results from an inadequate amount of oxygen in the respiratory system
and can result in brain injury, permanent brain damage or even death
(Swiercinsky, Price & Leaf, 1993). Ischemia, reflex hypotension and/or
artery impingement can develop secondary to a blow to the head
(Erlanger et al., 1999).
13 Brain Injury Association of America
During a violent altercation, a perpetrator may attempt to control a person
by silencing them, often using choking as the mechanism. San Diego
Deputy City Attorney Gail B. Strack and Dr. George McClane study
cases of strangulation and choking, educating law enforcement officials
to increase awareness of these instances (Strack, 2000; Strack &
McClane, 1999; Strack & McClane, 2000). Strack (2000) estimates that
between 15-50% of sexual assaults involve strangulation.
Strack reports forced restriction of oxygen can be attained by use of the
perpetrator’s hands or by use of an object (i.e., a rope or cord) (Strack,
2000; Strack & McClane, 1999; Strack & McClane, 2000). Only 11
pounds of pressure applied for 10 seconds to the neck is necessary to
force the restriction of oxygen to cause unconsciousness (Strack &
McClane, 1999). Death can occur in four to five minutes with application
of 30 pounds of pressure (Strack & McClane, 1999).
Physical substantiation after strangulation may not be apparent—although
internal injury could have transpired—and internal neck swelling can
compromise the airway passage (Strack, 2000; Strack & McClane, 1999;
Strack & McClane, 2000). If the person’s medical condition is not
addressed, reports of death from the compromised airway passage can
result in 36 hours (Strack, 2000; Strack & McClane, 1999; Strack &
McClane, 2000). Persons without visible injury have died several weeks
after strangulation as the result of undiagnosed brain damage (Strack &
Strack and McClane (1999, 2000) examined 100 strangulation cases in
San Diego, indicating that 62% of the reports about people who were
strangled contained no documentation about visible injuries and only
three had sought medical treatment. Because the injury was not obvious,
1) medical attention was not sought by the person who had been choked
or strangled and 2) medical attention was not recommended by those
encountering the person (Strack & McClane, 1999; Strack & McClane,
Brain Injury Association of America 14
Strack and McClane (1999, 2000) report the following signs of
strangulation or choking that should prompt medical attention and care:
scratches, bruises, red spots (from capillaries bursting), blood-red eyes,
rope or cord burns, neck swelling (subtle to massive), red linear vertical
or horizontal marks, complaints of neck pain, difficulty in swallowing or
breathing, vomiting blood, coughing and a lost or raspy voice.
Furthermore, Strack is concerned that persons who have been strangled
can present agitation associated with TBI, which may be misinterpreted
by the responding law enforcement officers as hostile or uncooperative
(Strack, 2000; Strack & McClane, 1999).
Blood Flow Disregulation
An anoxic injury also can occur if the head is punched repeatedly and the
neck buckles, causing impingement of the carotid artery (Erlanger et al.,
1999; Lampert & Hardman, 1984). Additionally, direct blows to the
carotid artery or large vessels can create thrombosis (i.e., a blood clot
which can obstruct blood flow), aneurysm and reflex hypotension
(Erlanger et al., 1999; Hof et al., 1992; Lampert & Hardman, 1984). Part
of a blood clot (termed an embolus) can break off and travel to the brain
causing a cerebral vascular accident or death (Nolte, 1993). An aneurysm
is defined as a ballooning of the arterial wall, which can compress
surrounding structures or rupture (Nolte, 1993). Reflex hypotension
secondary to pressure on the carotid sinus decreases blood flow to the
brain, causing fainting and brachycardia (Erlanger et al., 1999; Lampert
& Hardman, 1984).
15 Brain Injury Association of America
Other Possible Injuries to the Brain Secondary to
Direct physical contact is not the only way the brain may be injured in
intimate violent relationships. Sexual violence, sexually transmitted
diseases, emotional stress and sleep deprivation can cause changes in
brain chemicals, resulting in a limitation in functional status and onset of
mental illness (Campbell, Kub & Rose, 1996; Jacobson et al., 1997;
Raskin, 1997; Russouw et al., 1997; Sheline et al., 1999). Research of
women with a history of suicide attempts indicates that up to 50% of
them have experienced intimate violence (Hartzell, Botek & Goldberg,
1996). As many as 66% of female inpatients with mental illness have
been abused (Gaffigan-Bender & Narula, 1998; Hadley, 1992).
Psychiatric manifestations can include anxiety, depression, eating
disorders, self-mutilation, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder
and suicide attempts (Barkan & Gary, 1996; Barrier, 1998; Campbell &
Soeken, 1999; Casscardi, Langhinrichsen & Vivian, 1992; Gaffigan-
Bender & Narula, 1998; Gremillion & Kanof, 1996; Keller, 1996; Loring
& Smith, 1994; McFarlane et al., 1991; Plichta, Duncan & Plichta, 1996).
Sexual assault can occur within intimate violence relationships. Although
the relationship between sexual assault in intimate violence and traumatic
brain injuries is not documented well, there appears to be a link. Smikle
et al. (1995) attest that women in their study reported a 75% rate of
traumatic injury if they were abused both physically and sexually, as
compared to women who only were abused sexually (34%) or only
physically abused (23%). Women in the Smikle et al. study (1995) who
had been abused both sexually and physically reported 60% of their
injuries to the head, face, and neck. Koss (1992) reports that half of rape-
related injuries treated in the ER presented contusions or abrasions to the
head, although the report does not specify the number of rape-related
injuries as a result of intimate violence specifically. Other authors
indicate that up to 50% of women who are abused physically in intimate
violent relationships also are abused sexually (Acierno, Resnick &
Kilpatrick, 1997; Quillan, 1996). Hartzell, Botek and Goldberg (1996)
indicate 35% of females who have experienced sexual violence in their
study also presented orbital fractures.
Brain Injury Association of America 16
Forces inflicted upon the eyes can result in a variety of ocular injuries,
which can occur acutely or over time (Falco, 1997; Richards, 1995). A
study of 74 professional boxers by Giovanazzo et al. presented the
following findings: 66% had ocular damage, 58% had vision threatening
complications and 24% had retinal tears (Giovanazzo et al., 1987, as
cited in Falco, 1997, as cited in Richards, 1995). It is estimated that
20%-30% of persons with TBI have visual deficits (Sabel & Kasten,
Lampert and Hardman (1984) state linear acceleration forces particularly
are responsible for retinal detachment. Corneal abrasion, lens
displacement, cataract formation and glaucoma also can manifest as a
result of eye injuries (Falco, 1997; Smith 1988, as cited in Richards,
1995). Because the eyes are an extension of the brain, it is important to
note that visual pathway disruption and impairment of the way the brain
and eyes work together can cause diploplia, perception disturbance and
thwarted reaction times (Richards, 1995; Scheiman, 1997).
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)
STDs have been estimated to occur in 3%-30% of persons who have
been raped (Chescheir, 1996; Family and Intimate Violence Prevention
Team, 1998; Koss, 1992). This is a concern for persons in intimate
violent relationships considering some STDs, such as syphilis and AIDS,
can spread to the brain (Campbell & Soeken, 1999; Family and Intimate
Violence Prevention Team, 1998; Warshaw, 1996) and, as with AIDS, be
fatal. Neurosyphilis can produce dementia, personality change, impaired
cognition, dysphoric or elevated mood, hallucinations, delusions or
delirium (Russouw et al., 1997). AIDS-related dementia presents
behavioral change and impaired cognition (Jacobson et al., 1997).
Recent research by Brian (University of Iowa College of Medicine, 1999)
indicates the brain inflammation associated with HIV-dementia can cause
the blood flow in the brain to become maldistributed, leading to ischemia
or brain damage, resulting in even more damage. Rothenberg and Paskey
(1995) believe women with HIV are more likely to be abused and report
high levels of depression and prior physical abuse. Furthermore, research
indicates persons with a history of sexual abuse who sustain a mild TBI
demonstrate greater deficits in the areas of working memory and
executive functioning (Raskin, 1997).
17 Brain Injury Association of America
The experience of intimate violence itself—as well as the witnessing of
the act by children and others—can be very stressful. Recent research
presents the effects of prolonged stress on the brain, indicating that stress
can cause permanent neurochemical and structural changes in the brain
(Kotulak, 1997; LeDoux, 1998; Raskin, 1997; Scheutzow &
Wiercisiewski, 1999; Van der Kolk, McFarlane & Weisaeth, 1996).
Changes in brain neurochemicals and brain structures can lead to
impaired cognition and psychiatric disorders (Herman, 1992; Raskin,
1997; Scheutzow & Wiercisiewski, 1999; Van der Kolk, McFarlane &
Weisaeth, 1996). Moreover, a TBI can compound the effects of
neurochemical changes, brain structure changes, impaired cognition and
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop as a result of intimate
violence (Barkan & Gary, 1996; Gaffigan-Bender & Narula, 1998;
Muelleman et al., 1996; Van der Kolk, McFarlane & Weisaeth, 1996),
with Raskin (1997) indicating that more pronounced cognitive
impairments are presented in persons with both PTSD and TBI.
Scheutzow and Wiercisiewski (1999) suggest persons with TBIs resulting
in the disruption of serotonergic systems may be more predisposed to
panic attacks, which also are associated with PTSD. PTSD, depression
and chronic stress can cause neuronal cell death and reduction in brain
structure size (LeDoux, 1998; Sheline et al., 1999; Van der Kolk,
McFarlane & Weisaeth, 1996).
During chronic stress and depression experienced by persons in intimate
violent relationships, glucocorticoid production increases to the point of
being neurotoxic, with cells being killed directly or by apoptosis
(programmed cell death or “cell suicide” in which a controlled or
programmed sequence of events leads to the elimination of cells without
releasing harmful substances into the surrounding area) (Sheline et al.,
1999). Human and animal research demonstrates a size decrease in the
hippocampus (i.e., the structure of the brain responsible for sorting and
categorizing incoming information into memories) secondary to the
increase in cortisol (Sheline et al., 1999; Van der Kolk, McFarlane &
Weisaeth, 1996). The amount of volume loss is in direct correlation with
the length of depressive episode and cortisol levels (Sheline et al., 1999;
Van der Kolk, McFarlane & Weisaeth, 1996). Because of the neuronal
decrease, there are deficits in verbal memory and short-term memory
skills (LeDoux, 1998; Raskin, 1997; Sheline et al., 1999; Van der Kolk,
Brain Injury Association of America 18
McFarlane & Weisaeth, 1996). Research on combat veterans with PTSD
indicates the hippocampus can shrink up to 26% and verbal memory
skills can decrease by up to 40% (Van der Kolk, McFarlane & Weisaeth,
1996). In addition, the risk of ischemia, superoxide radical generators
and hypoglycemia is increased because the neurotoxic effects of the
glucocorticoid increase neuronal susceptibility (Sheline et al., 1999).
Sheline et al., (1999) state “depression-related volume loss does appear to
be cumulative, suggesting that immediate recognition and treatment of
depressive episodes is important in preventing cumulative damage that
occurs with repeated episodes of depression” (p. 5042).
Additionally, the amygdala (i.e., the structure of the brain responsible for
assigning emotional meaning to incoming stimuli and making
associations with past memories) decreases in size in direct proportion to
the hippocampus (Sheline et al., 1999; Van der Kolk, McFarlane &
Weisaeth, 1996). For persons who have experienced sexual violence and
have PTSD, heightened activity in the right visual cortex induces visual
memories of the traumatic experiences (Raskin, 1997; Van der Kolk,
McFarlane & Weisaeth, 1996). Of particular significance is the
deactivation of the Broca’s area (Van der Kolk, McFarlane & Weisaeth,
1996) which has been suggested as an explanation of why persons with
PTSD present emotions in physical states and have difficulties putting
feelings into words (Van der Kolk, McFarlane & Weisaeth, 1996).
Persons in intimate violent relationships can experience interrupted sleep
for a variety of reasons (i.e., stress, physical symptomology and/or the
abuser may wake them up repeatedly during the night as a means of
control). Sleep disturbance and sleep deprivation also are very common
following TBI (Clinchot et al., 1998; Drake & Bradshaw, 1999; Tobe et
al., 1999). The exact relationship between sleep disruption and TBI is
unknown, but may be the result of interrupted neurochemical reactions
that take place during sleep (Clinchot et al., 1998; Drummond et al.,
2000). It appears reasonable to assume a person with TBI in an intimate
violent relationship would have disrupted sleep.
Persons with TBI can experience difficulty falling and remaining asleep
(Clinchot et al., 1998; Drake & Bradshaw, 1999; Tobe et al., 1999).
Females with TBIs report an increased rate of sleep disruption (Clinchot et
al., 1998). Persons with TBIs and sleep impairments are apt to experience
19 Brain Injury Association of America
decreased levels of function in activities of daily living (ADLS) and
vocation, as well as behavioral problems, cognitive impairment,
communicative impairment, depression and anxiety (Clinchot et al., 1998;
Drake & Bradshaw, 1999). Sleep deprivation can impair cognitive
performance in persons with or without TBI (Drummond et al., 2000). Free
recall memory and verbal learning is impaired particularly because of a
disruption of neural substrates (Drummond et al., 2000). As cognition
improves, sleep patterns appear to improve with recovery (Drake &
Brain Injury Association of America 20
Traditionally, it has been asked why a person in an intimate violent
relationship does not leave. The time has come to ask such questions as
“has a person’s neurological status been altered by being in an intimate
violent relationship,” “how many persons have died as a result of
undiagnosed TBIs incurred during intimate violence” and “how many of
those deaths could have been prevented?”
This article and literature search presented many types of brain
alterations and injuries that may result from intimate violence.
Combinations of TBI types and other brain status alterations can coexist
at the same time, thus magnifying the manifestations.
Research is lacking regarding the incidence and types of TBIs resulting
from intimate violence. Additionally, the obtainment of detailed facts is
integral to increase diagnosis and treatment. The short- and long-term
consequences of stress, TBI and relationships to other diseases must be
regarded to the same degree, if not more, than it has been researched
already in sports-related injuries. As mentioned previously, the
adaptability of the SAC Manual—developed to assess concussions in
athletes—needs to be investigated as a screening tool for persons who
may have sustained a TBI from intimate physical violence.
Policy makers also must be aware that persons presenting injuries from
intimate violence have been denied health, life and disability insurance
coverage (Cohen, De Vos & Newberger, 1997; Gremillion & Kanof,
1996; Hyman, 1996; Warshaw, 1996). Reasons for denial have included
terming intimate violence as a pre-existing condition, high-risk condition
or as a life choice (Gremillion & Kanof, 1996; Hyman, 1996; Warshaw,
1996). Paying out of pocket for health services can prevent persons in
intimate violent relationships from seeking healthcare (Hyman, 1996).
Persons with undiagnosed TBIs may self-medicate symptoms with illegal
drugs or alcohol, which only magnifies the effects of the TBI and can be
fatal. Persons in intimate violent relationships should have the
opportunity to achieve maximal levels of functioning- physically,
emotionally, sexually, and cognitively.
21 Brain Injury Association of America
All personnel likely to encounter persons affected by intimate violence
must be educated to increase detection and diagnosis of TBI.
Additionally, persons in intimate violent relationships must be advised of
possible symptoms and when to seek emergency help. For this to occur
there must be an increased public awareness of the incidence of TBI
caused by intimate violence.
In our society, if an altercation takes place between two people in public
there is a plan of action that follows (Jecker, 1993). Ideally, rescue
personnel would be called to take care of the wounded and law
enforcement would apprehend the perpetrator. Intimate violence
altercations traditionally have been viewed as private affairs in our
society, and it has been up to the persons involved—most likely the
recipient of the violence—to initiate medical and legal attention (Jecker,
1993). If that individual has cognitive impairments from neurological
injury and alterations secondary to TBI from intimate violence, his/her
ability to do so efficiently will be decreased. It is known that when a
person attempts to leave an intimate violent relationship, the chance of
fatal injury increases to 75% (Healey, Smith & O’Sullivan, 1998).
Therefore, it is imperative that a person attempting to leave such a
situation should make very careful, calculated decisions. It follows that a
person with TBI and impaired cognition would be at substantial risk
during this life or death time period.
Brain Injury Association of America 22
Impairments resulting from intimate violence must be looked at
holistically, as all ADLs and daily roles can be affected. The cumulative
consequences of undiagnosed TBI as a result of intimate violence spreads
with a ripple effect, from the person’s immediate family to throughout
society. The loss of potential to family and society is a tragic waste. The
time has come for the “privatization” of intimate violence to become
public, as violence is recognized as a public health concern. Research
into the relationship of TBI to intimate violence is imperative, with a
focus on what happens neurologically to the person in an intimate violent
relationship. In terms of this research, the crucial question remains, “Has
being in an intimate violent relationship altered the person’s neurological
Dr. Mary Car is an Information and Resource Manager for the Brain
Injury Association of America. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was formerly published in Brain Injury Source (Summer,
2000), Volume 4, Issue 2, 30-37.
This article is for educational purposes only.
23 Brain Injury Association of America
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